Outsourced inmates: States should be equipped to keep their prisoners

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Most neighborhoods would rejoice at knowing that part of its criminal element is leaving the area.

For Pennsylvania, though, which will be shipping 2,000 medium-security inmates to prisons in Michigan and Virginia for three years, it's an acknowledgment that the state lacks the capacity to handle its prisoner population. At least until four new Pennsylvania prisons are finished.

We don't blame the Department of Corrections for taking steps to keep its prisons from becoming powder kegs that threaten to explode due to overcrowding. Ignoring the situation would be unfair to the guards and unfair to the public. But this may be a time for judges, legislators and criminal-justice experts to examine Pennsylvania's sentencing practices with an eye toward their impact on the prison system.

Governor after governor laments the amount of public money spent on corrections -- this year it's $1.8 billion, the third-largest area of spending after education and welfare -- but no new policy is ever implemented to reverse the trend. Candidates campaign on tough law-and-order agendas, even though criminal offenders are not one-size-fits-all. When voters elect politicians with a lock-'em-all-up mentality, more and bigger prisons is where it inevitably leads.

Now for the first time except for the aftermath of the 1989 Camp Hill prison riot, Pennsylvania will be sending a large contingent of prisoners to other states.

Fortunately, the Department of Corrections says it will cost the same to keep the inmates in Virginia and Michigan as it would here -- about $135 million. That should relieve the taxpayers. As to advocates concerned about prisoners being far from their families, corrections officials say the inmates being moved will be those who already get few or no visitors.

Those are worthy considerations, and the department clearly did not take this action lightly. Even so, states, as a general principle, should not send their criminals elsewhere for safekeeping. It's like a family with so many unruly children that it has to pay the neighbors to take a few off their hands.

Maybe a candidate or two for governor next year will have a better idea.


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